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Poster D47, Thursday, November 9, 6:15 – 7:30 pm, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

A study, the study: Using indefinite and definite articles to examine the nature of structure building

Regina Calloway1,2, Charles Perfetti1,2;1Learning Research and Development Center, 2University of Pittsburgh Psychology

During text comprehension, readers create a mental structure of the text. When reading sentence beginnings within a text, readers can integrate the new sentence with the previous text or shift to a new mental structure. When possible, readers can also establish co-reference across a sentence boundary (i.e., linking a referent at the beginning of a sentence to an antecedent in the previous sentence). The present study examined whether the default mechanism for processing sentence beginnings is to shift or integrate by using definite (e.g., the) and indefinite (e.g., a/an) articles as sentence beginnings. Definite articles are cues that upcoming information should be old or related to previous information; indefinite articles are cues that upcoming information should be new. We hypothesized that readers should expect to integrate after encountering a definite article and shift to a new mental structure after encountering an indefinite article. Therefore, when nouns are explicitly repeated across a sentence boundary, definite articles should be a cue to establish co-reference, whereas indefinite articles should be a cue that an entity is new. When nouns are not explicit repetitions across a sentence boundary, readers should shift to a new mental structure following an indefinite article; and attempt to integrate following a definite article. A failure to integrate following a definite article should cause increased processing difficulty. In a 2 (explicit antecedent vs. no antecedent) x 2 (definite vs. indefinite article) factorial design we measured event-related potentials on nouns that followed definite and indefinite articles in two-sentence texts. Antecedents occurred at the end of the first sentence and the critical nouns were the second word of the second sentence (e.g., sweater. The sweater). During early processing at occipital sites, nouns that followed definite articles had reduced N170s compared to nouns that followed indefinite articles. At frontal sites, nouns that followed indefinite articles had greater P200s than nouns that followed definite articles. These findings indicate that article definiteness can influence subsequent processing on nouns, allowing nouns that followed indefinite articles to have increased orthographic recognition. At the level of semantic processing, nouns with an antecedent in the previous sentence had reduced N400s compared to nouns that had no antecedent in the previous sentence at right lateralized centro-parietal sites. There was no difference between nouns with an explicit antecedent that followed definite or indefinite articles in the N400 time window. These findings suggest that the N400 reduction for explicit antecedent nouns was due to easier lexical access from word repetition rather than establishing co-reference. Non-antecedent nouns that followed definite and indefinite articles had similar N400 mean amplitudes, suggesting that 1) when no antecedent is present, being unable to integrate and shifting to a new structure produce similar N400 effects or, more likely 2) when no antecedent is present readers shift to a new mental structure at the beginning of a sentence regardless of whether words were preceded by a definite or indefinite article.

Topic Area: Meaning: Lexical Semantics

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